Long hours in flight often prompt you to day dream and let loose in some deep thoughts. And then, such an opportunity results into a blog post, after a long time!
Recently, for the past year to be precise, I have embraced a little bit of skepticism. And as I turn 32 (I know, getting old!), I also realized that I may have been a little late to join the skeptics club for a number of reasons. I attribute the development of my skepticism to a lot of my friends, who argued and debated with me, and flexed some of my staunch beliefs. They challenged me to look in a direction where I hadn’t even considered to wander before. I wish this had happened earlier but it’s better late than never.
Skepticism can be wiki defined as “a questioning attitude towards unempirical knowledge or opinions or beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere”. The ability to question and then indulge in the process to find reasonable answers is not encouraged many times in a typical middle class environment in India. It is very common to hear the phrase “don’t ask questions”. Many times we can see parents getting frustrated with their kids, when the kids question some of the actions of the parents. And one response resonates over the years, “we are elders. We have more experiences than you have, which means you have to agree to whatever we say”. This may not always be parental. It may be seen among peers too, where people with more experience dominate the ones with lesser experience, demanding complete obedience to their orders. Such acts ultimately curtail skepticism. The demands of the elders or the more experienced lot may be reasonable too, but there is a lack of justifying those actions to the younger ones or the inexperienced ones, who are trying to find some reason in these actions before performing them. The justification is not provided because the person doesn’t really know the reason behind performing that action and has never attempted to find the reason as well. Maybe because that person was blindly following the orders from earlier generation.
Giving an example at this point may clarify my thoughts to you. It was said that we should not cut our nails or hair in the evening or on Saturdays. In olden days, when there was no electricity, it was considered a danger to handle sharp objects like razors or scissors for fear of hurting oneself. But now, does it matter if we cut our hair or nails in the evening with full lights on? Not really. And I still don’t know the reason for not performing these activities on a Saturday unless Saturday was the day of power cuts. This and such other daily activities, which may be obsolete in the current context, are performed by each generation after another, without questioning the reason for their performance. Because the act of questioning itself is frowned upon and considered impolite.
I was prey to the habit of not asking questions lest I stir up some unprecedented trouble and disturb my elders or peers. But, over the time (or the increasing age) has made me feel that it is equally important to find logic in the smallest action performed. Yes, some actions, no matter how illogical or obsolete, are very enjoyable to perform but we fail to notice the consequences of these actions behind the veil of enjoyment. For e.g., we perform many rites and rituals on a daily basis that are very enjoyable but secretly purport sexism and/or racism. Following traditions is one thing but supporting some sexist and/or racist attitudes under the guise of traditions should be questioned and if possible eradicated. Recently, whatsapp forwards and Facebook posts are full of data which is not verified, never questioned for its authenticity and blindly forwarded ahead. Thus, more and more myths are generated expanding our branch of mythology. Turning into a skeptic and questioning the source of these forwards, before they are taken literally, can avoid the spread of many hoax news and data.
Skepticism activates your brain to find reason rather than blindly accepting things as they are. A movie released last year, called Theory of Everything biographs the life of a famous physicist, Stephen Hawking. This movie alongwith the documentary of the same man titled Hawking elaborates the positive effects of promoting skepticism in your family. A typical dinner table conversation in the Hawking family would be about controversial topics like religion, homosexuality, etc. It would be common to debate and argue over a point till the time a logical reason was descended upon. Which brings me to my next point, debates and arguments are an integral part of skepticism. People shy away from arguments and debates for the same reason highlighted above, to avoid troubling situations and possibility of disturbing the elders or experienced peers by challenging their point of view. The only way out is to stay quiet and accept their view, even though it may be wrong, under the pretext of showing respect to their age and/or experience. But, it is important to understand that opinions of elders/experienced people may not always be logical. It is highly likely that they don’t agree to their own opinions but have to abide by them for the sake of respecting their elders or the society they live in.
The motto of people’s life has become “log kya kahenge” (what will the society say). People prefer to conform to the society where they live in. Any action or behavior lying outside of the normal curve is curtailed. Outliers are banished from the society. Hence, people prefer to go with the flow and avoid causing any turbulence by standing out. Skepticism intends to question that very flow. Next time when you find yourself in the middle of an argument, will you run away from it or participate in it and try to find logical explanations for your own brain? Next time when your kid asks you those relentless “why” questions will you be patient and try to answer them to the best of your “scientific” knowledge or will you dodge it by saying “don’t ask questions” and “do what your elders say” type of responses? Your answers will either make them blind followers or lead them to the path of skepticism to recharge and rejuvenate their thoughts, almost like a spa for the brain!
As 2014 comes to an end, everyone starts reviewing their annual activities, professionally or personally. New resolutions are chalked out even when the old ones may or may not be fulfilled. Like Aamir Khan from the papa kehte hain song intro, I had not resolved to do anything. No really, I mean it! But today, today I could think of just one thing…that I have turned vegetarian!
As a kid, I was a very fussy eater. All of my close and distant family members can attest to that. For hours, my mom would run behind me with food, stuff it in my mouth if she caught hold of me, and then force me to chew it as I would stare at her with mouthful of food, crying. The only food item that motivated me to eat was tandoori chicken. My parents’ joy knew no bounds when they saw me relishing a chicken leg piece at our favorite restaurant. That day, I hogged the chicken as if I was never given food before. I had officially tasted meat and then there was no stopping me. My drive to eat chicken slowly started encompassing all of it’s edible forms and also started expanding to other edible animals.
Given my love for meat, deciding to become a vegetarian was not sudden for me. It had been brewing in my mind for a couple of years but never found a reason good enough to justify myself. Every time I would decide to quit meat, I would debate with myself saying, “it’s a food chain and you are up there, so it’s fine if you eat meat”, or “where will you get your protein from” or simply “it’s so yummy, how dare you think of giving it up”.
I felt that by being a non-vegetarian, I was less fussy. People did not have to cook a separate vegetarian dish at a potluck, just for me. Also, majority of the people I interacted with were meat eaters and they always had this enthusiasm of making us taste a novelty meat item at the restaurants or at their homes. I felt I would insult them if I say no. There was no pressure and I would end up liking all of those delicacies. And then again, there was the pot of chicken biryani slowly cooking in the makeshift dum. As Neeraj removed the dough seal, the aroma of biryani would pull me away from being vegetarian.
My meat eating in India was restricted to chicken and fish. After coming to the U.S., my scope broadened to include pork and beef. Since I was not religious, I was open to try out anything and everything that was tasty. I still have great memories of eating pork tenderloin with my boss at a local bar, experimenting deer meat at a friend’s barbecue party, digging chicken wings at the super bowl get togethers, feasting on the thanksgiving turkey and relishing the chicken tikka masala cooked by my neighbor. The crispy bacon strips and spicy sausage with scrambled eggs was my comfort food when we stayed up late working on our thesis. Be it the Goan fish curry, the Bengali fish fry, the bland salted oysters, crab cakes, I think I have revelled sufficiently in the meat land.
The seeds of turning vegetarian were sown in my mind when we visited a hog farm as part of an educational/industrial visit through my work place in Indiana. It was no less than brutal to see the hogs packed up in close confined spaces, living, breeding and dying in their own stink. The smell of that brutality was tough to get rid of off my body and mind. When I narrated these thoughts to my advisor, he confessed to me that, coincidentally, he turned vegetarian after seeing a truck packed with hogs being taken to the slaughterhouse. Amma (Neeraj’s mom) and his sister have never touched meat for the same reason of causing animal harm. After this experience, I started watching videos, debates, documentaries and read as many articles and experiences I could find to help me make this decision. I was piling up inspirations and then, after two years of incessant discussions, reading and screen time, I decided to turn vegetarian in the month of April this year. When I cite animal harm as the main reason to give up meat, people ask me if I have turned vegan, giving up eggs and dairy products or giving up leather and wool as the next step after giving up meat, since there is a lot of animal harm in these aspects too. To such questions, my response is that people draw their own borders. Currently, I am drawing my border at giving up meat. Who knows, these borderlines may extend to encompass other degrees of animal harm.
It feels nice when you do not make any resolutions in January of every year, but when you look back at the year in December, you see that you unknowingly resolved to achieve something and actually achieved it. Now, as I embark on another exciting India trip, I muster all my inner strengths to stick to it.
This is the first time I am writing a book review, outside of grad school. I enjoyed writing it as much as I enjoyed reading the book.
When I start reading a non-fiction book, I have a certain pre-set notion in my mind, that it is going to be a tough read, because a non-fiction book brings with it a lot of data, statistics, historic milestones, etc. Sometimes it is hard to digest everything in one read. I have always treated non-fiction books like text books, where I know I will have to go back to them multiple times and re-read them to even get the confidence of quoting the facts from these books.
That being said about non-fiction books, Sidin Vadukut’s first attempt at a non-fiction book was very entertaining. It can be called a mini non-fiction book, quantitatively, based on the number of pages. It was a fast read, where facts were interspersed with the usual funny anecdotes of the author. It is hard to inject humor in a serious Indian history related non-fiction book, but Sidin Vadukut manages to mirror his twitter wit in the book. It is evident that the author has extensively researched a few facts in Indian history and acted like the Indian myth buster via this book. If I was a high school student in India, I would read this book as a fun social science reference book.
Through this book, the author urges us to adopt a sceptical attitude and not believe in things just by their face value. This attitude is especially important in this age when tons of hoax messages get forwarded through Whatsapp and Facebook. Friends forward supposedly informative messages under the guise of concern, without checking the veracity of that information, thus continuing the cycle of fake alarm. Same goes for messages, which get forwarded under religious and patriotic sentiments. A majority of these messages are just myths and bear no relation to truth. Sidin Vadukut, through his book, either bursts the bubble or authenticates some of the myths through his extensive research.
It is practically impossible for all of us to research the information that gets forwarded to us but we can always check the message with a sceptical lens. All it takes is to Google and verify if the message sent to us is genuine or a hoax. For example, one message was being circulated last year and it re-appeared this year. It said that it is a message from Delhi police that consumers should not drink Frooti, because a batch got contaminated with AIDS virus from the blood of a worker. As alarming as it sounds, it would take a minute to confirm from the internet if this news is actually true or not. And, in this case, this news was a hoax. Yet, it kept getting forwarded among educated people.
Although I have digressed from discussing about the book, the central theme of being a sceptic is common. This book will definitely motivate you to question some common Indian myths that have been “forwarded” over time and will make you think before you “forward”.
The Kindle edition of this book is available for $5.99.
To read this post, you might have to take a recap and read the previous post titled “A Monthly Misery”.
This topic of imposing misery on women during menstruation is so broad, that it demanded a second post. Apart from the endless dinner time discussions, I got a lot of responses from friends and family. Where a majority of them tried to give me reasons to justify the attitude towards menstruation in the past and present, a few lambasted at this attitude offering no excuse to this type of separatist behavior. The latter lot also ridiculed me for even trying to justify these regressive customs.
While debating with these different mindsets, I came across a couple of movies that dealt with this issue. First one is a short story in a National Award winning Marathi movie titled Gandha (meaning, scent), directed by Sachin Kundalkar. Do watch this movie if you get a chance. I think the full movie is available on youtube. This movie is a collection of three short stories. The first story went on to become an inspiration for a ridiculous Hindi movie, Aiyya, which was successful in damaging the innocence of the original story, but that is for another time. The last story in Gandha deals with the topic of our interest here. The title of this last story in the movie was “A Woman Sitting Aside”. With a very apt title, the story goes on to describe the plight of a woman who goes into her monthly menstrual cycle. She is constantly taunted by her mother-in-law because her menstruation meant that she has not conceived in that month. On the other hand, her sister-in-law goes into labor and has a second child, all during the time when our protagonist is “sitting aside”. Because of the separatist attitude, the woman in her menstrual cycle in the story is not allowed to do any of the house work while her mother-in-law, single handedly runs around helping her daughter in labor. While “sitting aside” on the loft of the house, all she craves for is the scent of a new born baby.
Women, in olden times and even today, in some places, perform rigorous physical activities to earn their daily bread and to run their house. For e.g., toiling in the fields, fetching water from the wells, cleaning, etc. Menstrual cycle was painful and unhygienic (as mentioned before) and hence, this sort of segregation helped them take some rest from their hard physical work. If there was so much of a positive intention behind this act, then why was there a constant taunting and negative attitude when women started menstruating? For e.g. a dialog in the movie I discussed above says “you were planning a nice holiday when you knew there is going to be so much work at home”. Funnily enough, a few of my friends told me that they did start using this separatist “planning a holiday” attitude for their own benefit. If they wanted to skip some pooja or a religious function, they would lie that they have their menstrual cycle going on and spare themselves from attending it.
The second movie dealing with this topic is a documentary film, called “Menstrual Man”. It was filmed recently, to honor the efforts of an ordinary man, who started a revolution of manufacturing cheap sanitary pads for rural women. You can watch the trailer on http://www.menstrualman.com and purchase the full 63 minute movie for $3.99. I regard this movie as a big drop in the ocean of erasing this taboo of menstruation.
Although the films I mentioned above have a rural base, the situation is no different in urban cities of India. We can possibly come up with a log of current incidents when we have been politely asked to “sit out”. And it is during these times, I feel, that we need to go a long way to liberate from this regressive attitude towards menstruation.
I had written this short article for ‘Sankalp 2013’, the Annual Magazine of Association for India’s Development, Pennsylvania State University Chapter. A close friend, Siddharth Advani, who was also the co-editor of this magazine, encouraged me to write a short article of 200 words, dealing with the topic of women’s empowerment in India. I chose to write the following:
“Women are striding past men in many fields. But, for three days in a month, a majority of them, even today, are categorized into a religiously defined, lower caste. Yes, I am talking about the taboo of menstruation, which still exists among women in India. Were you ever made to “sit out” of a religious ceremony because you were menstruating? Did you feel bad since you lost out on enjoying with your family?
Now imagine being treated as an untouchable for three days where you are assigned separate vessels, made to sleep on the floor, not permitted to meet guests, etc., which currently happens in villages and in a lot of families of city dwellers. Being a woman, have you inflicted any of the above atrocities on a fellow woman? If yes, then you have hindered the development of women in India by a big fraction. Think about it!”
I was restricted by a 200 word count. But, this topic is so close to my heart that I decided to dedicate a post for this.
As I read more about this topic, I realized that there used to be a valid reason for imposing restrictions on women during menstruation. In earlier days and even today, in some places where efficient facilities are not available, it was considered that women were unhygienic during their periods. It was and is messier if there is no easy availability of sanitary napkins. Hence, they were restricted from entering kitchen, cooking, meeting guests, etc. It was as if they were quarantined for five days in a month. Nobody is supposed to even touch them. Thus came the custom of inhibiting women from attending social functions during her periods. Same point of being unhygienic or “impure” was applicable to restricting women from entering the pooja ghar or the sanctum sanctorum. Hence, they were banned from performing any religious activities or attending any religious functions.
Is this main reason of being unhygienic applicable to us anymore? If not, why do we still impose restrictions on women under the blanket of “these are the norms of our society”, “this is what we normally do”, “God has made us this way”, “this is what God wants us to do” type of statements? It should be realized that every time you say no to a woman from attending a social religious function, she gets demoralized. She loses her confidence during “those days” because she starts considering herself an outcast, when nobody wants her. She starts dreading her life because every month, she has to undergo the same treatment of separation. It should be realized that it is a very private occasion for a woman and should not be looked down upon or celebrated out aloud. Yes, a menarche marks the start of a fertile period for a woman and she is eligible to bear kids from thereon. But, that doesn’t mean we declare it to the entire world! Now-a-days, in US, NRIs have started sending out invitations for “saree parties” to mark the onset of menstrual cycle for girls. Girls are made to wear sarees and displayed in front of family members and friends, to declare that she is a “woman” now. Thus, embarrassment is served complimentary with the discomfort of a menstrual cycle.
Whenever such issues of restricting participation of women in religious social events have come up, I have rarely blamed the men. Because it has always been women who have enforced these restrictive rules on other women. No man from my family has ever asked me the details of my menstrual cycle or prohibited me from attending any social religious ceremony because I was menstruating. Maybe because it was not their territory to discuss or they chose to stay quiet. I always observed how my father and now, my husband felt sad/disgusted/paranoid/helpless when they saw that I am being asked about these details and as a consequence, was found absconding from a social religious event later. Women, on the other hand, ask you to not disclose your menstrual details to the family hosting the social religious event in case it offends them that you are attending their function during menstruation. If it’s a ritual in your own house, women of the family will either reschedule the date of the events as per the collective menstrual cycle dates, will ask you to take date modifying pills (which is a hormonal treatment) or completely cancel the event if either of the above is not possible. A woman feels disheartened when anyone asks her about her “monthly dates” to plan an event, but the same woman will repeat that act with another woman and dishearten her. Thus continuing the vicious circle.
Do you, as a woman, ever feel like liberating yourself from this vicious circle? I know it will be difficult. But, I am taking a small step by choosing not to disclose my “monthly dates” to anyone when they are planning a social religious event. They will have the choice to invite me, in whichever “state” I am. Same is true, the other way around. I will not make any other fellow woman uncomfortable by asking her to disclose her menstrual details and as a result, exclude her from any event. I know it is easier said than done, but its worth a try.
It could be a drop in the ocean to erase this monthly misery of menstruation.
I observed a different sort of fervor when I crossed the Indian Ocean. I never really meant to explore on the other side of the ocean, but people took me along, over the years and gave me a new home. Although people tried to adopt the ways of the new country, they wanted to continue the traditions of my festival, the Ganesh festival. I thought, why not share with you, my ten day experience to one of the universities in the US.
Indian graduate students, true to their nature, began preparing just the day before my ETA. I had done my background research about these students and realized that their salaries were quite meagre. Naturally, they were using the same statue for the past few years. It was bought from Texas and had a discreet “Made in China” tag underneath. China had clearly realized my demand in the US and started manufacturing my statues. I gave a brief laugh and focussed my attention back to the decorations. Frantic trips were made to Walmart, Dollar Stores, etc. After scouring the aisles of party supplies, students had to settle for streamers and confetti. A few Hawaiian flower garlands were also bought. The Indian store was clever enough to make huge profits by selling pooja material. While some students enthusiastically focussed on obtaining high resolution print outs of ashtavinayaks for decoration and reference materials for pooja, aarti, mantra pushpanjali, atharvashirsha, etc., few others struggled to make perfect modaks. Somehow, the place was set up and my ten day short US tour at this university began!
Should we welcome Ganesha at India time or US time, was a big question. While I waited patiently wondering when exactly will I be let inside the house, everyone came to the conclusion that US time suits everyone the best. Students struggled to dress up in a traditional attire to welcome me, but some of them gave up in vain because of busy class/lab schedules and deadlines. One of the couples was made in charge of welcoming me and one of the students who claimed to know Sanskrit helped them. None of the attendees or me understood his Sanskrit but he seemed very dedicated. After an hour of water-draining-from-hand ritual, we all (including me) let out a collective sigh of relief and excitement when the modaks were brought in for me. As I stared hungrily at the modaks, I heard arguments about how many aartis should we sing. Some devout followers voted for an even number and another group wanted odd numbers. Some of us who did not really care about anything at that point except for modaks, decided that we will sing all the aartis, on the print outs, whether odd or even, to acknowledge the efforts of students from mechanical engineering, who had printed and stapled them for everyone till 2 am that morning. The aarti lacked basic rhythm but I applauded at the attempt. I was actually tired of listening to Lata Mangeshkar and Anuradha Paudwal versions in India. Anything, apart from them, was a good welcome for my elephant ears!
All of this was repeated for ten days. While I sat there, relaxing on my trip abroad, I kept observing the people who visited me. I usually don’t judge the devotion of my devotees, but couldn’t help from thinking that some people here were more devoted compared to their Indian counterparts. Well, they did not splurge on any performance enhancers so that they can stay up all night to play dhol tasha for me but here, the expression was different. Since such kind of noise pollution and blatant exhibition of one’s religion was not allowed in this university, all the devotion was restricted towards making the best prasad for me. And students found yet another avenue for free food! Not that I blame them because I enjoyed each prasad too! Some students appeared confused if they should worship me or not. They seemed to be contemplating idol worship of this sort and I blessed them so that they can decide what is best for them. The other extremes were pure non-believers who were visiting me with two motives, to eat good food and “to socialize”, if you know what I mean! The devout worshippers were scarier for me. They would compete vociferously with others of their kind while singing the aarti and atharvashirsha. They would glare at people who did not recite any of these and directly challenge their upbringing by their stares. All this while, I would just sit there, peacefully, enjoying these different strokes of devotion.
Each ritual, be it the first day or the last, was marred by discussions of what should be done and what should not be done. As rain showered on the last day of my tour, a hurried procession reached the river to symbolically immerse me. I became emotional and blessed everyone to finish their studies and adopt a broader view towards this world and their peers without bias. I blessed them to cross the bridges of humanity and embrace everyone just like they crossed this vast distance from India to America. My emotion was rewarded by flashing compass needles from iphones, followed by a heated up discussion to ensure that I was being sent away in the right direction.
My name is Ganesha and I will definitely find my direction, but, I just hope you all know where you are going.
Damyanti Biswas is an author, blogger, animal-lover, spiritualist. Her work is represented by Ed Wilson from the Johnson & Alcock agency. When not pottering about with her plants or her aquariums, you can find her nose deep in a book, or baking up a storm.
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